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Berkshires adjust to new loss of clout

Political map shifts power further to east



Contributing writer


It’s a long way from the days of Silvio Conte, the beloved Pittsfield Republican who represented the Berkshires in Congress for 32 years until his death in 1991.

In the Conte years, Berkshire County felt itself to be the center of Massachusetts’ 1st Congressional District, a universe that extended from the New York border east to the northern tier of the Pioneer Valley, including the city of Northampton.

The 1st District’s identity as a place of small cities and rural towns continued for another 20 years under Conte’s successor, Democrat John W. Olver of Amherst, a lanky academic whose liberal, blue-collar politics fit the expectations of his Berkshire constituents.

But the equilibrium of the Berkshire political firmament is about to be upended.

Nationwide shifts in population in the 2010 census resulted in the loss of one congressional seat in Massachusetts. Not since 1789 has the state had fewer than 10 seats in Congress; at its peak, in 1910, the Massachusetts delegation numbered 16. But when Congress convenes in 2013, the state will have only nine representatives.

In November, after nine months of deliberations, the state Legislature approved a redistricting plan, which Gov. Deval Patrick promptly signed into law. The plan emerged just weeks after Olver announced that he would not be seeking another term in Congress.

Not unexpectedly, the lost House seat came at the expense of rural western Massachusetts, where the old 1st District was merged with its more populous neighbor to the east.

For the Berkshires, the new district’s configuration, combining 66 rural communities with the urban centers of Springfield, Holyoke and Chicopee to the east, completes a reversal of fortune.

In Conte’s era, Pittsfield had a population of 60,000 and was the largest city in the sprawling 1st District. In the newly reconfigured 1st District, Hampden County, which includes Springfield, will account for 60 percent of the population.

The new district comes with a longstanding incumbent, Democratic Rep. Richard Neal of Springfield. First elected in 1988 and now the sixth ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, Neal has announced his intention of seeking re-election. The reconfigured district, like Neal’s old district, remains heavily Democratic, although Neal could face a primary challenge next September from former state Sen. Andrea F. Nuciforo of Pittsfield.

In Springfield’s orbit
Some politicians and community leaders in the Berkshires may lament the shift of power to the Pioneer Valley, but others say the outcome of the redistricting process isn’t as bad as they’d feared.

“It could have been worse,” observed state Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield, who said he had given up his flirtation with running for Congress himself. “There were multiple times when there was momentum in the Legislature for splitting the county in half, giving the southern Berkshires to the Springfield district of Rich Neal, while the northern Berkshires would have gone to the Worcester district represented by Jim McGovern. That was my greatest concern – that the Berkshires would be divided.

“This isn’t the worse outcome,” Downing added. “We have the hill towns and all the Berkshires united.”

Still, given the overwhelming population densities in the new district’s eastern cities, it is unlikely that someone from the Berkshires will ever again represent the 1st District, he admitted.

“Sixty percent of the population in District 1 will now reside in Hampden County, and of that, 40 percent live in Springfield,” Downing pointed out. “In the future, we are going to have someone from Springfield as our congressman.”

He suggested, however, that while this scenario may be new for people in the Berkshires, it also represents an opportunity.

“It’s going to be new, as well, for the member of Congress,” Downing said. “This is a chance for us, here in the Berkshires, to say, ‘Here are the things we need; these are the things that are important to us.’ It may be cold comfort, but that’s the wonderful thing about elections.”

He also praised Neal as a “hardworking member of Congress who is interested in learning about the issues facing the Berkshires.”

Neal “is aware, for example, of our need for a broadband communications network, and was instrumental in getting western Massachusetts a stimulus grant to create that network,” Downing said. “He knows our issues, and we will be lucky to have him if he wins.”

Opening for a challenger?
Nuciforo, who now serves as the registrar of deeds for the Berkshire Middle District, announced his intention to run for Congress earlier this year, long before Olver’s retirement announcement. Unlike Downing, he said the idea of a congressman from the Berkshires isn’t so far-fetched, even in the newly configured district.

Although the Berkshires may be less populous, the region has a far higher percentage of residents who vote, he said.

“I’m very comfortable with the new district,” Nuciforo said. “It contains 86 cities and towns, 66 of which are currently represented by John Olver. This is still an Olver district of small towns and cities that traditionally have voted for progressive candidates.”

He cited the Democratic primary of 2010 as an example. Of 153,000 Springfield residents, 8,820 voted in the primary. In Pittsfield, with a population of about 42,000, the primary turnout was 7,623. A similar pattern occurred in the 2008 and 2006 election cycles, he said.

“This is very encouraging for small-town candidates,” Nuciforo said. “It’s a Sil Conte situation. It is the progressive voters who determine the primary victor. District 1 has been one of the top three progressive districts in the state.”

He characterized Neal as a conservative, blue-dog Democrat whose financial backing comes from Wall Street firms and whose views on social issues, such as a woman’s right to choose, is more conservative than the district’s.

“We have a conservative Democrat being shoe-horned into a progressive district,” Nuciforo said. “That’s why this election is so important. The question for Democratic voters is whether they want a conservative, rather than a candidate who is in the John Olver tradition.”

And Nuciforo said he’s confident he can defy the conventional political wisdom that assumes the winner of any Democratic primary in the new district will necessarily come from the Springfield area.

“You have to keep in mind what Mike Dukakis was told before he won election as governor: ‘You can’t win without winning Boston,’” Nuciforo said. “But he did win, and he didn’t win Boston. That can happen in District 1.”





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